Los Angeles

Michael Gonzalez

Kohn Gallery

It’s appropriate that Michael Gonzalez’s latest show, throughout which bobs a surprising scatological referent, is unveiled as the art world is in economic middive. Recession implies regression, insofar as productivity is the criterion we use to distinguish infants, who take pleasure in shitting, from grown-ups, who take pride in shitwork. Not working, in turn, means reverting—relinquishing adult independence. Representing an in-between state, artmaking is celebrated as the closest that a laborer can come to doing squat.

Prior to this outing, Gonzalez was known for assembling tiny, disparate machine parts into decidedly idle gizmos. A sense of squandered industriousness survives in this latest batch of work, but now he applies himself to making structures rather than entities; the new works are differentiated less by individual personality than by patterns and rhythms. The wide variety of materials is gone; here Gonzalez works primarily with key rings, shaft collars, and braided wire. Linking keys or collars in nets, chains, or simply articulate tangles, Gonzalez shifts attention away from product toward process, extending his ancestry beyond the commodity sculpture of the ’80s to ’70s sculpture. His materials, while factory made, do not carry the matter-of-fact tone of industry, and in this respect his work now owes as much to the post-Minimalism of Eva Hesse and Jackie Winsor as to Minimalism proper. He doesn’t order and stack so much as knit. He doodles, really; though the work is very physical, it remains modest in its compulsiveness—suggesting tinkering rather than toil.

Like Hesse and Winsor, and, more recently, Robert Gober, Gonzalez demands cleanliness and uniformity as if to underscore both the persistence and the inadmissability of the psychic garbage that invisibly cakes his art. The pinched-off and slightly twisted clumps of copper braids, suggesting excrement, end up looking just as structurally articulated as the entwined rings and collars, which in turn seem complicit in Gonzalez’s worthless play.

Gonzalez uses the metallic dung to widen the vocabulary with which he can speak about his derelict pleasure in creating nothings. Still, the taboo substance introduces something identifiable, both as representation and as self-conscious commentary—a joke the work makes about itself.

In the three pieces that stand at the show’s center, Gonzalez actually demonstrates the increased latitude he gains by talking shit. In History Painting (all works 1991), fecal loaves weave gracefully through a net of key rings, the two alternating their roles as foreground and background (Abstract Expressionism comes to mind but suffers in the comparison, looking neither vulgar nor fastidious enough). The component parts in History Painting are then separated out in the two works that bracket it: to the left, Untitled takes the form of a series of tiny tin-plated braids that seem part of a once-mighty continuous stool, surviving now only in globs that droop over their pushpin supports, while to the right, Key Ring Matrix consists of a net of various-sized rings the dilating design of which suggests rainfall on a square of pavement. Whether turds, key chains, or both, the poetry in these pieces sounds roughly the same—cheap yet affecting. Even Blue Movie, which boasts turds so large and rigid they themselves are made into megabraids, looks like a cross between R. H. Giger’s sado-Bauhaus exercises and an oversized lanyard.

A claim Lucy Lippard once made for Hesse’s art—that its “fanaticism has absorbed rather than been conquered by a strong formal sense”—applies to Gonzalez’s work as well. Being formalized and structured only renders Gonzalez’s fetish more intelligible, not less delinquent. This places him more in league with such extremely coherent babblers as Jenny Holzer and Mike Kelley than with fellow pretoilet-trainee John Miller. Miller by comparison tries to simulate the gooey inertness of human discharge so as to better contrast it with the high order of theory (indeed, in Miller’s work theory stoops to play straight man and the shit gets the punchlines, but it’s only by way of theory that shit is allowed consideration); for Miller, shit furthers and is thus subsumed by theory. Next to this work, Gonzalez’s looks all the more like “bad” shit, since it lacks any goal beyond unproductive play. The pleasure evident in Gonzalez’s art remains wonderfully wicked and wanton, derived as it is from an act of creation that goes nowhere and yet seems adequate, complete—in short, a total waste.

Lane Relyea